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Florida State football spring questions: Defensive Backs

FSU looks to prove that Tallahassee is the home of the "No Fly Zone"

Hunter looks to return to the field in 2014 after his 2013 season was lost to injury
Hunter looks to return to the field in 2014 after his 2013 season was lost to injury
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

The next chapter of our Florida State football spring questions programming is a position loaded with depth and experience. PJ Williams and Ronald Darby return at corner back while FSU's stud Freshmen, Jalen Ramsey looks to build on his stellar freshmen campaign at safety. Key freshmen contributor Nate Andrews is also back and will look to insert himself into the starting lineup. Tyler Hunter also returns and reports are that the former starting safety is 100% healthy and ready to contribute. Update: Jimbo Fisher stated in his presser that Hunter will be cleared to practice in the spring but will wear a blue non contact jersey. FSU hopes to have him fully cleared by the summer.

While the Seminoles return talent and experience, they must replace two mainstays in the starting lineup in nickel back Lamarcus Joyner and safety Terrence Brooks. Brooks and Joyner, who are likely early round NFL draft picks, brought leadership and play making ability that Charles Kelly will look to replace with a mixture of veteran experience and talented youth.

The 2013 FSU defense played primarily a base nickel defense while also employing dime sets in obvious passing downs and spread attacks. In the Pruitt and now Kelly scheme, the nickel and dime positions are referred to as "Star" and "Money" respectively. In this scheme, the Star typically replaces the Sam backer and the Money typically replaces the Mike backer. Charles Kelly will look to identify the best 6 defensive backs that will comprise the Seminole secondary in the fall.

If FSU is to continue its run of the nations top passing defense, new talent must emerge and experienced veterans must step in to fill the void left by Joyner and Brooks. With a new secondary coach, you can bet that multiple players will be tried out at all positions.

Who Replaces Terrence Brooks at Safety?

Terrence Brooks was one of the nations top safeties and is likely to be chosen in the first 2 rounds of the NFL draft in April. Brooks brought a combination of elite athleticism and "next level" physicality that coaches covet. Aside from the obvious physical attributes, Brooks handled the secondary calls and brought veteran leadership to the back half of a Seminole secondary that was rarely out of position.

FSU's next starting safety will need to demonstrate a strong knowledge of the scheme, the versatility to roam or play man coverage and the willingness and ability to provide run support on the edge. So who are the candidates?

Tyler Hunter may have the inside track to the position, but many questions remain for the veteran player. Hunter opened the 2013 season starting opposite of Brooks and expectations were high after he played a key role at Nickel back  for the 2012 Nole defense. Unfortunately, Hunter suffered a very serious neck injury in FSU's 4th game of the season and many wondered if Tyler would ever be able to play football again. But miraculously Hunter is back and by all accounts appears to be healthy and ready to hit the field once again. We know that Hunter has elite athleticism and the the range to play any position in the secondary. Jimbo also constantly praised Hunter in the 2013 spring and fall camp for his leadership and work in the film room. But, there were a couple of key concerns in the small sample set of Hunter's play in 2013. A glaring weakness appeared to be his ability to provide the physicality in run support required of the safeties in the new scheme. What we don't know is whether this was a product of a player adjusting to his new responsibilities, or simply an inability to fight off blocks and make sure tackles on the edge. If Hunter wants to be in the starting lineup come August, he will have to demonstrate in that he has fully recovered from his injury and has the ability to provide physical run support on the edge.

Nate Andrews was a relative unknown to the non-recruitniks when he made his debut for the Seminoles in 2013. All Andrews did was lead the top pass defense in the country in interceptions as a true freshmen. Interceptions are good, but they are not necessarily a good judge of how good a player really is. Now Nate will look to take on a bigger role in the secondary after playing mostly "Money" during 2013. Nate demonstrated strong coverage ability and sure tackling during his freshmen campaign and there is little doubt that he has the ability to start opposite of Ramsey. But if Nate is to hold off the veteran Tyler Hunter, he will need to take the next step as a leader of the secondary. Charles Kelly expects the safeties in this defense to have a strong knowledge of the scheme in order to provide coverage audibles on the fly to the rest of the secondary. With a full season under his belt, Andrews will need to step up as a leader and spend additional time in the film room learning the intricacies of the position.

FSU landed a stud defensive back in it's 2014 class when Lake City, FL product Trey Marshall inked with the Noles on signing day. Marshall has great size (5'11, 196lbs) and elite athleticism (4.3 40 at "The Opening") that allows him the versatility to play any secondary position on the field. He also is an early enrollee and will have an early jump on his fellow class of 2014 recruits. Marshall certainly possesses the physical ability to win the position, but it may be unrealistic to expect Marshall to master the scheme responsibilities of  FSU's complex scheme. Expect Marshall to play a ton this year but the Jalen Ramsey's of the world don't come around that often.

While not imperative, ideally FSU is able to identify the starting safety opposite of Ramsey by the conclusion of spring. I would expect this battle to extend into fall as Charles Kelly mixes and matches to identify his best starting 5 or 6.

Other contenders: Colin Blake, Keelin Smith, Lamarcus Brutus

Who replaces Lamarcus Joyner?

If Nick Saban could create a player from scratch to play the "Star" position, Joyner would probably closely resemble the finished product. Joyner possessed physicality in run support, short area quickness to lock down the slot and insane explosiveness while blitzing that often fooled the opposing QB's. Put simply, Joyner was a playmaker and the spark plug for the FSU defense.

Fortunately for FSU, the loaded roster will offer Charles Kelly plenty of options to fill the vacated roll left by Joyner.

Jalen Ramsey was specifically mentioned by Jimbo Fisher during his Spring presser as a player that FSU will test at the Star position. We know Ramsey has the physicality to press the slot receiver and provide strong run support, but it will be interesting to see if he provides FSU with as much value at the position as he does at safety.

Trey Marshall was recruited specifically by former FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to play the "Star" position. As mentioned above, Trey has the ability to cover like a corner and tackle like a safety. Marshall's 4.3 speed could also make him a viable threat off the edge as a blitzer. If Marshall uses the spring to fully grasp the responsibilities of the position, he could be the next star FSU freshmen defensive back.

Tyler Hunter has experience playing Nickel and demonstrated strong coverage ability during his time at the position in 2012. But this isn't Mark Stoops' defense, Hunter will be asked to take on linebacker responsibilities in run support. If Charles Kelly looks to a veteran to replace the leadership and football knowledge of Joyner, Hunter may be the guy to do it.

Nick Waisome excelled for Mark Stoops at CB during the 2012 season opposite of Xavier Rhodes. But when Jeremy Pruitt revamped the FSU defense, Waisome became the forgotten man in the secondary. Unfortunately for Nick, the FSU 2.0 defense requires big physical corners who have the ability to play man and physically beat up opposing WR's. Waisome slight build doesn't fit well with what FSU is trying to accomplish at corner. While Nick doesn't figure to compete with returning starters Ronald Darby and PJ Williams at the CB spot, his elite technique and short area quickness make him a prime candidate to cover the slot in the "Star" role. While Waisome has proven to be a sure tackler, he will have to show the defensive staff that he can play bigger than his stature if he wants to compete with Hunter and Marshall for the job.

Other Candidates: Nate Andrews, Marquez White